I didn’t respond, but many others who have received similar texts have. Some even throw it back at their spammers by telling wild stories and sending hilarious messages to frustrate everyone on the other end. They fight back with snark and in some cases post screenshots of their conversations online.
Spam texts are on the rise, as is the number of people hitting back through “scambaiting,” which refers to “wasting a perpetrator’s time,” said Jack Whittaker, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Surrey who studies the phenomenon. However, experts say that responding beats the point as it opens up a person to even more spam texts.
Spam texts seeking to scam their recipients to give up valuable information are not new. One of the first digital spam messages was sent via email chain letters. The most infamous were scams where someone posing as a Nigerian prince claimed to need the recipient’s help in depositing a large sum of money.
Once smartphones became commonplace, scammers switched to texting. And in 2022 spam texts are much more personal. Often they mimic a misdirected text, perhaps addressing the recipient by the wrong name or using a generic first line (“How are you” or “I had fun tonight!” are common) to put out a response to lure.
If you have been receiving such messages lately, you are not alone. “There is an incredible spike in spam messages,” said J. Michael Skiba, a Colorado State University professor who specializes in cybercrime and international financial fraud. Globally, 90 billion were shipped last year, he says; in the US, 47 billion spam messages were sent from January to October 2021, a 55% increase from the same period in 2020. According to RoboKiller, a spam-blocking company, scam texts led to $86 million in US losses in 2020 alone† “People are just bombarded with this,” Skiba says.
Skiba says texting has several advantages over email from a scammer’s perspective: a note from a phone number is less suspicious than a message from a vague email address, and the informal nature of texting makes grammatical errors less noticeable. Many people also feel a very human urge to respond to a text. “It’s a psychological trick because you know the lyrics aren’t right, but it appeals to your desire to help and says, ‘You’ve got the wrong number,'” Skiba says.
However, the person on the other end probably works with an organized group of scammers in a call center and hopes you say just that. A single response is enough for a scammer to verify that a phone number is genuine. That response creates a knock-on effect that could invite even more spam messages onto your phone. Ultimately, scammers try to at least verify your number to potentially sell it to other groups; getting your personal information is a sweet bonus.
“I would 100% recommend not responding at all,” Skiba says.